DiversifYA: Raven Ashley

RavenToday, Raven Ashley is our wonderful interviewee! I’m so happy to have Raven here. She is a YA/NA writer, sociology student, and an incredibly enthusiastic and supportive Twitter-er!

Raven is one of the founders behind Operation Diversity, an upcoming blog that will celebrate and highlight diversity in MG, YA, and NA. (You can find more information about Operation Diversity in co-founder Patrice’s interview!) Which means you’ll want to keep an eye on the both of them, don’t you think? 😉 Follow Raven on Twitter here, and read her blog here!

1. How do you identify yourself?

Identity is such a tricky thing. There’s the way other people identify you, and then there’s the way YOU identify yourself. Other people would identify me as African American, which is okay, but I’ve always had a problem with that identifier. The American part is fine because that’s what I am but the African part? Not so much. I would love to truly be considered African American. I would love it even more if I knew what country in Africa my ancestors came from, and about their culture.

Since I don’t know anything about either, I feel wrong when people identify me as that. Being called black doesn’t neccessarily feel right or wrong. It just seems like a more accurate identifier than African American. This is not to say that this is my only identifier (because it’s not). It is, however, the last identifier on the long list of identifiers that make up my identity. I believe that we are all more than our outer shell, and that the way people look on the outside shouldn’t be a determination for how we identify that person. But because you wouldn’t know who I truly am unless you talk to me, it’s okay to identify me as black. Just keep in mind that I am more than the color of my skin.

2. What did it feel like growing up being black?

I was raised by single mother, in a predominately black neighborhood. Some people have the tendency to think that growing up around ‘people who are just like you’ is easy, but that’s not true. Black people, as do people in other ethnic groups, come in many different colors. All of us aren’t the same complexion, and because of that our experiences are different. I’m dark skinned, so I got teased A LOT by my peers. I won’t repeat some of the names I’ve been called here, but just know that the jokes were never-ending. And it didn’t help that my cousins made fun of me being dark-skinned on a regular basis. Of course there were a lot of other things that I got teased about. My weight being one of the things. I’ve never been a size two, and for a while I used to think that it was my fault that I got picked on. People at school made me feel like I was dealt the ‘short end of the stick’. Yeah, I get the whole ‘kids are cruel’ thing but this was more than kids being mean. Some people actually believe that the lighter you are, the more beautiful you are, and this stems from a lot of things that I won’t get into here (If you have time look up the brown paper bag test/paper bag parties. Also, the film: Imitation of Life).

As I grew older, I began to realize that if a person didn’t like the way I looked, then that was their problem, not mine. I love my skin color. It took a while for me to get to the point where I could say that, but it’s true. I’m completely in love with being dark skinned, and I feel comfortable in my skin. As I should. As anyone should.

That wasn’t the whole of my childhood though. After I graduated from my predominately black elementary school, I got accepted into a middle school that was extremely diverse and was big on academics. We received homework packets the summer before 6th grade, and though I didn’t want to spend my entire summer completing school work, that’s what I did with most of my time. Some of the work was fairly challenging, especially the math (or so I had thought), but I got through it. Once I officially started 6th grade, my math teacher pulled me and a few other students aside after the first few days to take a test. It was a math test and though I had never seen any of the problems before, I breezed through it. To make a long story short: I was placed in advanced math, and while everyone else was taking basic math I was learning Algebra. In 6th grade.

You would think that would be something to be excited about, right? Well I was excited about being challenged and being pushed to reach my full potential but I didn’t like that I was only one of the seven black kids in the entire class of thirty. I didn’t like that we were reminded of that. There’s this thing in America called the ‘racial achievement gap’. I’m not sure if it’s in other countries but here test scores of black kids are constantly being compared with that of their white peers. Studies show that black kids are performing at a lower rate than white kids, and because I didn’t fit into the percentage of black kids who were failing, I was reminded of that every single day. I’m a straight-A student. I have been ever since elementary school, but the fact that I received good grades was never enough. Once I hit high school (I went to a predominately black high school), the principal would hold meetings with the top four students in the school (myself included) asking us why we were doing so well in school, while our peers were failing. She would bring in school board members to ask us about what ‘makes us different’ and I hated it. I hated the shock in their eyes when they would hear that we did well on all of our standardized test, as if it wasn’t possible for black kids to do good in school. Then when my high school closed down at the end of my junior year, I was told by a teacher that I was an ‘anomaly’, that it’s rare that black kids like me excell academically, and that really blew my mind. Not in a good way either.

Don’t let either of these experiences give you the wrong impression. I had a great childhood. One of the things I strongly dislike, okay I HATE, is that books about POCs are all about their experiences about being POCs and some internal struggle they have with the color of their skin. While there are people out there who are constantly being oppressed for these two reasons, this is not all of who we are, and this is not all of who I am.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

When I turned thirteen, I joined a teen writing site and after awhile I thought ‘hey, why don’t I use a real picture of me as an avatar’. I had been a member on the site for a good 7-8 months by then, and everyone was pretty friendly. I gave a lot of feedback to a lot of other teen writers’, and it was just a great experience that was part of what helped me grow as a writer. The moment I changed my avatar, I received a private message from someone that was shocked that I was black because I seemed so nice online, and that made me feel a lot of things. I’m not sure I could put those feelings into words but as time went on, I began to see that even in real life, people tend to find black people intimidating. Like if I don’t smile for one second, that puts people off. I even had a woman walk up to me and say that she was afraid to approach me because I wasn’t smiling, and she just decided to approach me anyways because she wanted to ask me a question. I forget what the question was now but…I’m a very friendly person. I’m a little shy so you won’t find me going out of my way to talk to strangers, but if someone does strike up a conversation with me, I’ll try to be a little less shy and talk back. But you can imagine how confused I was that someone could be afraid of ME, of all people.

Those few experiences that I’ve had caused me to try to make myself ‘more approachable’. I go out of my way to smile at people who look in my direction, and though it feels weird, I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable around me. Because I am in no way intimidating. But people are going to assume that I am if I don’t try to ‘look friendly’. Again, I used to think that this was my problem, but as I grew older I discovered that this wasn’t the case. People let one experience they have from someone from a particular ethnic group determine their perception of the entire group. Media plays a large part in that, and it sucks (for lack of a better word) because people miss out on getting to know someone just because their physical attributes or the way they are dressed intimidate them.

This is not the biggest challenge of course, because none of what would be considered challenges are MY challenges, if that makes sense. Society has a lot to learn and more room to grow. And because we are society, this means that WE have a lot to learn and more room to grow. I or anyone else should never be made to feel uncomfortable in their own skin. They should never have to try to make anyone who is uncomfortable with them, comfortable. That just doesn’t seem fair to me.

4. What do you wish people knew about being black?

Well, I can’t speak for everyone, and I’m not going to try to. People need to realize that just because someone belongs to a particular ethnic group, it doesn’t mean that they’re all the same. So if you happen to be watching a show on BET, that’s not what all black people act like. If you’re watching a movie and there is a two-dimensional black character who is nothing more than a walking stereotype, again, this is not representative of ALL black people. I haven’t read a lot of young adult fiction with black protagonists. Why? Because most of it doesn’t appeal to me. Yeah I grew up in what people call ‘da hood’ but that is not who I am so when I see books that take place in that setting at the bookstore, I cringe. Why? Well because while black kids do go through some of the things that are written about in those books, they are in no shape or form the entire ‘black experience’. There are black people who live in the suburbs, and black people who are apart of the middle class. There are black kids that don’t speak slang (myself included) and are not constantly getting into fights at school. More importantly: hip hop culture IS NOT synonymous with black culture. The list can on and on but let me just say that, if you want to write a book with a black protagonist, I encourage you to, but before you do talk to people first. Hey, if you want to ask me questions, I’m fine with that but don’t just talk to one person, talk to many people. This is the case for any POC character you want to write. Not all of our experiences are the same, and maybe you’ll get it wrong (my current project is YA Fantasy and my MC is black and even I feel like I’m going to get it wrong). But that’s okay. Get it wrong. Get it wrong and learn. And then learn some more.

I guess I got off track but one last thing I wish people knew about being black is that it’s just a skin color. I’ve always believed that race is a social construct and that it’s only skin deep. Underneath my dark skin, I am just like any other teenage girl. I have a HUGE crush on Johnny Depp (because who doesn’t?) and a poster in my room to prove it. I’m devastated by the fact that Adam Levine is engaged (once upon a time I thought we were going to get married…hey, a girl can dream). I love shopping for clothes, and hanging out with my friends at the movies. As for fandoms, I belong to MANY of them. Any Doctor Who fans out there? I’m a reader and a writer and so many other things that do not have anything to do with the color of my skin. So if you want to write about a character who ‘looks like me’ or is apart of any ethnic group, don’t start by thinking about how different from you they are. Start by focusing on what makes you like them and vice versa because at the end of the day we are ALL human and we all have things in common. Sometimes we let our differences keep us from seeing that.

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

Contrary to popular belief not all black people can dance. You’re looking at someone who has no rhythm whatsoever haha. Okay that is not that biggest cliche or stereotype that I’ve seen but there are so many of them. For example, there’s the one about the dad not being around. Before I go on, I know my father was never around, but let me set the record straight. It’s not because he was incarcerated or because he was murdered or anything like that. This is always the case in books/movies that I’ve seen and people actually have asked me if my father wasn’t around because he’s in jail. No, that is not the case with every fatherless black child (and neither is the mother not knowing who the father is). There are actually black kids who have two parents who are well off (I have a lot of friends who fit this category) and though I’m not well-off and have one parent, this doesn’t mean that I’m not happy or that I’m not privileged. It gets under my skin when people assume that because they live in a nice neighborhood, have two parents, and never want for anything they are automaticaly privileged, but I won’t get into that here.

Speaking of neighborhoods, not every black person lives in a ‘bad neighborhood’ and not every black person refers to the neighborhood they live in as ‘da hood’. I didn’t grow up in the best neighborhood, and yes it ended up on the news a lot but there was never a time when I didn’t feel safe. In case you didn’t know, the suburbs/middle-class neighborhood is not synonymous with safe. It’s just that people see all the nice houses and the picket fences and they think ‘oh hey everyone who lives in this neighborhood must be nice and nothing bad happens here’. Whereas in the ‘bad’ neighborhoods, that happen to be predominately black (at least where I come from) are considered to be dangerous and again that is not the case. I even had someone ask me if I was scared to go to school and though I was screaming at them inside my head, I told them the truth. No. I was never scared to go to school because the truth of the matter is bad things happen everywhere, no matter the economic class or the kind of people who live in that neighborhood. So if your character has to live in the ‘da hood’ please don’t have them calling it that, and please PLEASE PLEASE don’t portray it as this completely scary place where everyone gets shot up because that’s not always the case.

These are not the biggest stereotypes or cliches but these are the ones that grate on my nerves. Again, if you want to write a realistic black teen don’t rely on what you see in the media for research. Everyone has their own personal experiences and not one of them are the same. So talk to black teens, ask questions, and learn.

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

I know I said this a few times already but I can’t stress this enough. Talk to people, ask questions, and LEARN. I think the dumbest writerly advice anyone can give another writer is ‘write what you know’ because most people take that literally. They think that, for example, because they’re white and straight they can’t write about two Latino boys who fall madly in love with each other. We are writers, goshdarnit. If we can write about magical creatures (vampires, werewolves, fairies etc.) then why the hell can’t we write about people who belong to a different ethnic group than we do? Someone answer this question for me, please, because I’d like to know.

None of us knows what it’s like to be a vampire or a fairy and yet it doesn’t stop us from writing these stories. So you want my advice? Well, for starters, EXPAND what you know. If you want to write what you know, then don’t be content with just writing about what you already know. Get out there and find out more. There are so many people out there who belong to different cultures, and come in all different shapes and colors and speak different languages. This world is so beautiful and diverse and we should want to know more about them, so find out about them and learn. Expand. Don’t limit what you can and cannot write because not only are you doing yourself a disservice, but you’re doing teens/young readers a disservice, too. Everyone should be able to see themselves in a book. White and straight shouldn’t be the default. For those Americans out there, we might live in a country where white and straight are the majority but we live in a WORLD where that is not the case.

Again, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask me anything. You can follow me on my blog & twitter. I don’t update the former too often but I am ALWAYS on twitter, so you can get in touch with me there. I’d love to hear from you guys! And thanks for having me DiversifYA. 🙂

One Response to DiversifYA: Raven Ashley

  1. Raven,

    I have to admit, I found your post here surprising. I guess that means there is a lot I don’t know. 🙂

    I am white and affluent and don’t know a single person who would ever dare tease someone about the color of there skin. Maybe that’s because the only black students at my high school had fathers in the NBA. Still it blows my mind that your pears regularly teased you about having slightly darker skin then them. I can’t even begin to comprehend that.

    Having read your blog and followed you on twitter before reading this post, there were some things that didn’t surprise me at all. Mainly, I’m not surprised that you are smart and eloquent and capable of teaching me things I need to learn. I’ve never really thought much about the color of your skin on your little thumbnail picture. Maybe that makes me naive, but I don’t think I want to change. I like thinking of you as articulate and creative, ’cause that’s who you are. And the fact that you had teachers, TEACHERS, who couldn’t understand that, well those people had a serious problem.